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User, Hacker, Builder, Thief: Creativity and Consumerism in a Digital Age

User, Hacker, Builder, Thief: Creativity and Consumerism in a Digital Age

Beth Kolko, Berkman Fellow

The not very slow but definitely steady flow of computer technology into far corners of everyday life has changed fundamental cultural processes and affected how people work, learn, and play. It’s also provided lots of cool stuff to buy. But by some measures there has also been a somewhat fundamental failure of imagination in envisioning what hardware, software and services can look like which has resulted in users from outside targeted demographics adapting technology in unexpected and creative ways. One might argue that such examples of adaptation could serve as potentially valuable illustrations of what technology that is relevant across contexts could look like, if only users were seen as more than consumers – perhaps, also, as citizens.

This talk is about diversity of design, the cult of expertise, and why hackers are the good guys. It’s also about how people use technology in Cambodia and Kyrgyzstan, what user generated content looked like before PCs, and why EULAs fundamentally threaten innovation. Essentially, this talk lays out the argument that theories of subjectivity and axe grinders can be part of the same conversation, and that encouraging users to become hackers, builders, and thieves may be the best way to ensure creative and diverse design.

About Beth

Beth Kolko is an Associate Professor in the Department of Technical Communication at the University of Washington. She was previously a professor of English at the University of Wyoming and the University of Texas at Arlington.

Her work in the early 1990s focused on rhetorical theory and cultural studies with an emphasis on writing as a social act. Studying writers in informal educational settings, both offline and online, sparked her interest in the Internet (which was then text-based) as a writing environment which provided users the ability to put into practice post-structural modes of engagement. At the same time, she began teaching in computer classrooms, and the move from LANs to WANs allowed her to incorporate Internet resources into her pedagogy. As development of Internet technologies affected the range of content online, her research shifted from considering texts to multimedia. Her work on virtual communities at that point began to include visual representations of users in online environments and issues related to community fragmentation online. That work was tied to her long-term interests in how identity and diversity impact people’s use of technology. Her chapter “Erasing @race: Going White in the (Inter)Face” in her co-edited volume Race and Cyberspace framed the argument about diversity and technology in terms of interface design and assumptions about users. Other work in the area has included establishing a virtual world, MOOscape, which was the first of its kind to incorporate race as an element of online identity.

Her current research further develops the idea of diversity and technology by focusing on Internet development in Central Asia. Currently funded by the National Science Foundation, the Central Asian Information and Communications Technology project applies theory-based analyses of culture and technology in order to concretely investigate how technology is being used in diverse communities and how such technologies change the cultures in which they adopted. The current phase of the project includes qualitative and quantitative longitudinal studies in the five Central Asian republics (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan). See the project website for more information.

In addition to her work on ICT and development, Kolko also leads a research group on digital games. This group is currently working in two areas: (1) cross-cultural investigations of multiplayer games, and (2) research on gender and educational games. For more information, see the project website.


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Past Event
Jan 29, 2008
2:52 PM - 2:52 PM